Translation work in the EU is undertaken at the Directorate-General for Translation, the largest single department in the Commission. DG Translation employs more than 1700 translators and 600 support staff, split more or less equally between Brussels and Luxembourg.
Why the EU has such a large translation centre - Directorate-General? The answer is that:
- Council Regulation No 1/58 establishes that regulations and other documents of general application shall be drafted in all official languages;
- Treaty establishing the European Community (Article 21) establishes that citizens have a right to address the official EU bodies in any of the EU’s official languages and to receive a reply in that language.
It is noteworthy that the EU has 23 official languages: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, German, Estonian, Greek, English, Spanish, French, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Maltese, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Finnish, and Swedish.
All 23 official languages have an equal status - ‘all originals’. The more languages the EU has, the more difficult it is to ensure that all originals are consistent, i.e. all say the same thing. A small amendment to a legal act already translated should be done in all 23 languages, thus involving 22 translators, 22 revisers, 22 secretaries… Thus, 23 languages entail 506 language combinations. Should ten more countries join the EU, there will be 33 languages - 1056 language combinations.
The concept of multilingualism underlies the large-scale translation activities performed in the EU, since the EU is a transparent, multicultural and democratic organisation in which all citizens are equal, EU laws are binding on its citizens - they have to understand them, communication with EU citizens has to be in their language, and the EU wants its citizens to play a full part in its activities.